Happy Memorial Day. Happy? Really?
Every year, on the last Monday in May, this prosaic American phrase causes me to physically recoil whenever I see or hear it. Happy Memorial Day. With those casual words, tossed over shoulders on our way to beaches, barbecues, & furniture sales, we demonstrate as a nation a deep ignorance of the history of this day and an almost total disconnect from the suffering and death that unending warfare brings our own citizens & their families.
Memorial Day officially began as Decoration Day. Decoration Day officially began with Major General John Logan, head of a Civil War Union veterans organization. In 1868, he issued a general order that declared May 30th a day for decorating “the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church yard in the land.” Over a century later, Congress fixed Memorial Day as a federal holiday to be observed on the last Monday in May. But the genesis of these death rituals, Memorial Day’s true origin, lacks a clear name, date, & location just as much as it lacks honorable culture-wide observance.
As is the way with this sort of magic, multiple threads emerged in multiple places to weave together the birth of the holiday weekend we now so carelessly take advantage of every year.
October 1864, Boalsburg, PA — Records reveal women in the community begin a yearly ritual of tending & decorating the local graves of Civil War soldiers.
May 1865, Charleston, SC — Black women & men who were former slaves in South Carolina, gather at a racetrack-turned-prison-camp to re-inter over 200 Union soldiers originally buried in a mass grave. A solemn parade, prayers, & grave decorations are offered in remembrance of the war dead.
January 1866, Columbus, GA — The Ladies Memorial Association passes a motion to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers every spring. Mary Ann Williams, the organization’s Secretary, sends a letter to newspapers all over the country, asking that women across the nation do the same.
April 1866, Columbus, MS — Women already decorating the graves of Confederate dead from the battle of Shiloh decide to begin tending to Union soldiers’ graves, as well.
June 1866, Vicksburg, MS — An editorial in the Vicksburg Herald reads “while engaged in decorating and preserving the graves of our soldiers, they thought not of war-like strife, nor of vengeance against the dead. They only knew, as they viewed those solitary graves of strangers in a strange land, that they were sleeping far away from home, far from mothers and sisters, and as they dropped the Spring roses of our own sunny clime upon their silent resting places, it was with the Christian hope that some fair sister in the North in a like charitable spirit, might not overlook the silent graves of our Southern sons, which are scattered among them.”
It is likely that the actions of these now mostly nameless women were Major General Logan’s inspiration for creating the first federal observance of Decoration Day. After WWI, Decoration/Memorial Day became the day to remember all of America’s war dead, not just those from the Civil War.
In researching this piece, I read an online pop culture sort of article written in the last year or two that included a few simplified bullet points of some of this Memorial Day history followed by the exhortation to “at least take a moment” between picnics, barbecues, & beach volleyball matches to remember the original purpose of the holiday. A moment. Only a moment? Can the enormity of war’s death & destruction truly be squeezed into just a moment? Just a quick breath between the vast litany of sales & social events?
I have to wonder– if the cost of war was more present in our observances of this day, would we perhaps be less cavalier about killing our own & other people’s children than we are right now? We’re certainly happy to wave our flags & recite our rhetoric, but that’s so much easier to do when we’re privileged enough to easily put the seemingly never-ending cycles of war out of sight, out of mind on the whole whenever we please. I feel we need to confront this as a culture. We need to face up to this & to sit with the discomfort that comes as we look directly into the truth of warfare. And to fully experience all the emotions that come with confronting those truths. I believe that would have the power to shift even some of the most hawkish among us.
I’ve become increasingly less forgiving of the American habit of letting all the start-of-summer rituals take over Memorial Day weekend (along with the huge doses of despicable marketing gimmicks) largely in part because of my experiences with ANZAC Day in Australia. There, I witnessed how truly an entire nation pauses to remember– & not in a rah-rah look how patriotic we all are way, but in a somber, honest, humble, grieving manner that looks towards peaceweaving as the only acceptable way to truly honor the war dead.
If we could somehow figured out how to stem the relentlessly rising tide of rampant commercialization and if the majority of every community in America, large & small, participated in something like the ANZAC Dawn Service as a culture-wide ritual, I might not care quite so much what people did with the rest of the weekend. Until then, however, I regard Memorial Day sales promotions as offensive, and ignorance or disregard of the history & purpose of the day as a symptom of deep cultural dysfunction.
Those who survive our dead soldiers and the dead, themselves, deserve much more that “at least a moment” on one early summer’s day. And lest we forget, a summer’s day that is by no means, a happy one.
Kate M. Brunner is a writer, healer, ritualist, & member of The Sisterhood of Avalon, studying at the Avalonian Thealogical Seminary. She is a brand-new resident of Colorado & a homeschooling mother to her three children. She holds a BA from Tulane University, where she studied Economics, International Relations, & Religious Traditions. Kate is a presenter for Red Tents & women’s retreats. She also hosts seasonal women’s gatherings, facilitates labyrinth rituals, and leads workshops on an assortment of women’s spirituality topics. During 2016, she will be presenting at the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology Conference in Boston, MA, at the SOA’s first open online conference, AvaCon 2016, & at the inaugural Ninefold Festival in Orange, CT.